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U of M’s successful ‘non-revenue’ sports teams contribute in other ways

With many having a banner year, they help the U in several ways — filling seats, boosting enthusiasm and building youths’ loyalty to consider the U when they’re older.

Coach Brad Frost speaks with members of the Gopher women's hockey team during a game.
Courtesy of Gopher Athletics/Jerry E Lee

For years, the disturbing number of empty seats at Ridder Arena irked Brad Frost, the women’s hockey coach at the University of Minnesota.

When your team challenges for national Division 1 championships every year, then wins one, yet struggles to draw even 1,500 people to a 3,400-seat arena in the alleged State of Hockey, you start asking questions. Like, what else do we have to do?

“I’ve been somewhat frustrated over the years that we haven’t gotten better attendance,” Frost said. “My charge to [the marketing staff] each year is: ‘Get people in the stands.’ Once people come, we know they’ll want to come back.”

That’s the trick.

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At the U, like many Division I institutions, more than a dozen so-called “minor” or “non-revenue” sports compete for relevancy and attention in the long shadows cast by football and men’s basketball. (They’re considered “non-revenue” because the programs aren’t cash cows.)

All fight the even-broader shadows of the four pro teams in the Twin Cities, who dominate the market even when they stink. If you listened to sports talk radio blow up Monday over a mediocre Vikings team winning one game, you understand the deal.

These days, non-revs at many institutions are struggling to survive. Soon-to-be Big Ten member Maryland dropped seven sports last year, and earlier this month Temple announced plans to cut baseball, softball, gymnastics and four others to prop up a money-sucking football program.

A banner year

But that’s not the case at the U, where signs point to a banner year for multiple non-revs.

Crowds are up significantly at women’s hockey (2,467 per game, first nationally in Division 1) and volleyball (3,942, fourth), and slightly at wrestling (3,289), whose attendance isn’t tracked by the NCAA. All three teams are nationally ranked. Hockey is No. 1 and wrestling No. 2, while volleyball finished No. 10.

Each benefited from increased advertising and promotional efforts targeted to children and families, plus social media presence via Twitter and Facebook. That serves two purposes — filling seats, and getting those kids to consider the U down the line. Gophers wrestling coach J Robinson likened that strategy to Coca-Cola and Pepsi directing ads to kids, locking them up early for lifetime brand loyalty.

“You want to start with young people, because once they dream of being a Gopher, once they get good, kids don’t give up their dreams,” said Robinson, who is seeking his fourth NCAA team championship. “If they have a chance to do the same thing here that they do at Notre Dame, or at Duke, they’ll stay here.”

Gopher women’s hockey actually has done that for years, focusing on youth hockey associations. But it wasn’t enough. By 2010-11, average attendance dropped below 1,000 per game, to 838, fifth nationally.

Attendance rebounded to 1,307 in 2011-12, when the Gophers won their first NCAA title since 2005. Things really took off on Dec. 1, 2012, when a sellout crowd of 3,400, lured by $1 admission, watched Minnesota whip Wisconsin, 4-1. Minnesota boosted that idea from the Badgers, whose annual Fill the Bowl charity event set NCAA single-game attendance records for three consecutive years. The Gophers drew 2,132 the next day and 2,000 or more to all but one home game the rest of the season, confirming Frost’s long-held belief that first-time spectators would enjoy the atmosphere and come back.

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Smashing the NCAA record for consecutive victories and winning a Frozen Four at home helped the Gophers lead the country in attendance with 1,962 per game. The winning streak ended last month at 62, but fans keep coming out, especially kids.

A VIP Youth Hockey Pass offers students in eighth grade or younger free admission to regular-season games and reduced prices for their parents. With two major promotions ahead — a reprise of $1 admission for Ohio State on Jan. 10, and the Hockey City Classic at TCF Bank Stadium with Minnesota State — the Gophers should average more than 2,000 for a full season for the first time, and by a lot.

Spillover effect

“The women’s hockey team helps with all the women’s programs,” said Amanda DeLisi, a U marketing executive responsible for volleyball, wrestling and several other sports. “They got so much publicity with the streak that you can’t help but want to check out what the other women’s programs were doing.”

Like volleyball. The Gophers reached the NCAA Tournament for the 15th consecutive season and 16th out of 17 before being eliminated in the third round, a run that began under former Coach Mike Hebert in 1997 and included Final Four appearances in 2003, ’04 and ’09. When Hebert retired, that success helped former athletic director Joel Maturi attract Hugh McCutcheon, the New Zealander who coached U.S. Olympic teams to gold in 2008 (men) and silver in 2012 (women).

Believe it or not, frigid Minnesota, with its strong club teams, is a volleyball hotbed. Concordia-St. Paul just won its seventh consecutive NCAA Division II title. St. Thomas took last year’s Division III championship. And the Big Ten, not the Pac-12, is the nation’s premier Division I conference. Eight teams made the NCAA Tournament, more than any other conference, and nine were ranked at some point.

Hawaii usually leads the NCAA in volleyball attendance, averaging 6,000 or more. The Gophers inched up from eighth in 2010 (2,621) to third in 2012 (3,316) at the Pavilion, which holds 5,840. This year the average reached 4,241 before settling to 3,942, still a nice increase and again third-best nationally.

More than 1,000 are season-ticket holders. In mid-October, two nights after ESPN2 televised a come-from-behind, five-set victory over No. 5 Michigan State, a near-sellout crowd of 5,638, second-largest in program history, jammed the Pavilion to see the Gophers dump Michigan in four sets.

Earlier this month, a modest but enthusiastic gathering of 1,959 cheered on Minnesota’s three-set victory over Radford (Va.) in an NCAA Tournament first-round match at home. On hand: The pep band, cheerleaders, a couple of dozen students in tropical attire and one in a banana costume. The place rocked.

“It’s very exciting,” said all-Big Ten outside hitter Ashley Wittman. “Whether we’re up or behind, they’re cheering. You can hear them on the court, or on the bench. It’s a lot of fun having a crowd like that behind you.”

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Volleyball uses social media marketing

Volleyball worked social media hard, getting the word out about weekly match specials. Wrestling boasts an even larger following, which is interesting since the plain-spoken Robinson — a former Army ranger, Vietnam veteran and 1972 Olympian in Greco-Roman wrestling — values his time too much to spend it tweeting or sharing photos.

“I don’t have a Facebook [page]. I’m not on LinkedIn. I don’t want to be on any of those things, because it’s a draw of time,” Robinson said. “I don’t go there. The program does. Our camp does. You have to use the media the kids go to. And you have to know who you’re trying to market to.”

Among U sports, wrestling’s Facebook page has more “likes” (5,445) than any other except football and men’s basketball. Its Twitter account lists 8,785 followers, almost 4,000 more than women’s hockey or volleyball. Communications assistant Madeline Greene usually tweets from Robinson’s smartphone during dual meets. Wrestling offers so many advance sale deals for students, youth wrestlers, first responders and community groups that if you pay full price for general admission, you’re just not trying.

“My favorite quote is from Bear Bryant,” said Robinson, citing the late Alabama football coach. “He said, I’m not very smart, but I can take what other people do and make it work for me. If you look around at sports that are successful and doing things right, then you take from them and use it for you. If you want people to come, you have to make it an experience.

“The other thing is, you have to win. If you’re in Iowa and there’s no pro sports, that’s a different deal. But if you’re in Minneapolis and you have a choice of the Thunder or the T-wolves or the Lynx or the Wild or the Vikings or the Twins, we’re back to that first deal of the entertainment dollar.

“There’s nothing that makes things better than winning. People will follow a winner. Look at when the Lynx are winning or losing. That’s the way it is. It’s understanding what you need to get people to come, and then doing that.”